While people across the United States celebrated Independence Day weekend with barbecues and fireworks, President Donald Trump spent the holiday threatening reporters on Twitter.
Trump tweeted a video of him wrestling and punching a man with the CNN logo superimposed on the man's face, and used a hashtag to call the news network a "fraud." The video originated in a GIF format from an anonymous Reddit user who, the Anti-Defamation League says, has “an 18-month record of vile comments and memes against Muslims, African-Americans, Jews and others.” Days earlier, the president had posted several revoltingly sexist tweets about MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski.
Trump’s recent Twitter behavior and the rapidly fading long-held norms for White House relations with the press signal that the president’s two-pronged campaign against an informed public is ramping up. We warned about this the week Trump was sworn into office and it’s truer than ever now: Trump is waging both a war against facts, and a war against those who report them.
Trump has been in office for nearly six months, and his major presidential message to the American public is dangerously clear: Only trust information that comes directly from him or the swath of fringe propaganda outlets that do his bidding.
Trump’s actions are straight out of the authoritarian playbook, and their goal is to denigrate and delegitimize the news media while simultaneously building an alternative media of sycophants. He has been threatening the press since before he took office — and these attacks will only get more intense. We can’t let him get away with making journalists the enemy because someone will get hurt.
On and off Twitter, Trump is elevating his own propagandists as he attempts to delegitimize actual journalism. Some of these fringe outlets have even ended up in the White House press briefing room (when the briefing room is used at all). Here, too, Trump’s war against facts has taken a more overtly sinister and violent tone. Some of the most sycophantic members of the pro-Trump media have a history of hateful rhetoric and ties to white nationalism, just like the anonymous Redditor Trump borrowed from this weekend.
It’s a sign of the times: Press freedom groups that have detailed threats against the media in other countries for decades are now beginning to document threats against reporters in the United States.
Trump is ramping up his personal attacks against the news media in an obvious effort to discredit its members. At the same time his administration is cutting off press access of legitimate outlets in unprecedented ways.
And Trump needs it to work. His legislative agenda is stalling, his approval ratings are tanking, and several investigations are tightening around him. In the face of these failures, the Trump administration is borrowing from a despotic playbook to push — more forcefully than ever — a set of “alternative facts” about his accomplishments and views.
As Columbia Journalism Review Editor-in-Chief Kyle Pope noted this morning, reporters “aren’t obligated to cede the media agenda to this or any other administration.” While documenting Trump’s frequent (and disturbing) attacks on the press is important, it can be counterproductive when the attention devoted to the president’s temper tantrums completely overwhelms reporting on vitally important policy issues. One way journalists can help fight back is to make sure Trump can't count on his attacks on the press to drown out coverage of the implications of his policy priorities, like the Republicans' health care bill.
In the earliest days of the Trump administration, facts were inconvenient. Now, they are the enemy. And if the press doesn’t stand up to these clear attempts at mimicking the media environment of an authoritarian state, facts will soon become indistinguishable from lies. The White House Correspondents’ Association has repeatedly fallen short in its efforts to protect a fiercely independent free press from this president’s attacks. Will its duty to report what’s in the public interest extend to protecting itself, in the same interest, from a devolution into full-blown state-controlled media?
Will the war only end when Trump’s dangerous sycophants occupy the entire press briefing room, or when the briefing room no longer exists? And more importantly, will the casualties be a slew of American institutions that preserve and protect a free press, or something even worse?